Sunday, November 25, 2012

Renaissance Cooking--Alice's Way

A friend of mine recently sent me copies of three booklets on Renaissance food authored by Anjila K. Olsen, otherwise known as Alice the Cook, who I understand is a popular figure on the Minnesota Ren Faire circuit.  They are titled simply "Renaissance Cooking", "Renaissance Cooking II: Visiting the Silk Road", and "Renaissance Cooking III:  Illustrated Renaissance Cooking."  They are small pamphlets, each no more than about 40 pages in length.  They consist primarily of recipes, with an occasional short essay thrown in about cooking techniques, or the origins of a particular dish.  So far as I know, Alice only sells the pamphlets at the Ren Faires where she performs, though she might be willing to mail them to interested parties who contact her through her website.

I devoured (pun intentional) these pamphlets eagerly.  Having read through them, however, I have mixed feelings about them.

On the other hand, just about all of the recipes in the books appear to be marvelously tasty, and I plan to try out a number of them.   They include a large number of savory meat stews and soups, often flavored with bacon and fortified with root vegetables--exactly the kind of thing I make for dinner for myself and my meat-loving husband.  In particular, the meat hashes (e.g., the sausage and bacon hashes) would make a great meal for any meat-lover.  Moreover, these hash recipes could easily be adapted to vegetarian use, either by substituting seitan or a soy protein for the meat, or by adding portabello mushrooms or another "meaty" vegetable.

On the other hand, from the point of view of someone, such as myself, who is more interested in the history of food than in cooking, these booklets are less than satisfying.  They contain no bibliographies or even  references to particular historical sources.  More disappointing (at least to me) is that most of the recipes in all three booklets contain potatoes and/or sweet potatoes--both New World plants that, at best, would have been hard-to-come by during the Renaissance in Europe.

The lack of background sources is particularly irritating to me with regard to the instances where Alice discusses a subject I didn't previously know about. For example, on the subject of "hashes", which Alice correctly defines as "simple one-pot dishes that combine meat ... with various root vegetables to create a hearty meal," Alice states that hashes are traditionally English in origin, and began as a kind of meat-less vegetable stew prepared and eaten by the lower classes (at least during the 14th century); meat became part of these stews later. This sounds like a very plausible origin story, but it doesn't quite square with the following statement from the Food Timeline:
The idea of hash (pre-cooked meat cut up into tiny pieces and simmered/fried until tender with or without vegetables and spices) dates back into ancient times. Ancient Romans composed similar dishes of various sizes and composition. Food historians tell us minced meat dishes of various sorts were quite popular in the Middle Ages. Mutton, a traditionally tough meat, was often used. Beef, veal, and venison were similarly rendered. Corned beef hash was inevitable.
The Food Timeline goes on to report that some believe that hash, in the modern sense of a stew of chopped meat with chopped root vegetable,s arose in the 17th century because of some remarks made by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary.

So was hash always made with meat?  Was it commonly not made with meat during certain periods (such as 14th century England) and not others? Nothing that Alice (or, the Food Timeline, for that matter) says gives me a direction in which to dig to satisfy my curiosity on this point.  That's frustrating to me.  In my opinion, a tasty dish is even more enjoyable if you understand how far back in time it was enjoyed by other people.

To be fair, Alice openly acknowledges that a number of her recipes are not strictly period. For example, in "Renaissance Cooking III", she notes, with regard to a recipe for Orange Rosemary Chicken:
I realize that potatoes were brought to Europe with the discovery of the New World and were not commonly used; they have been added as a suggestion to this recipe for the modern American and European tastes.
It's my belief that Alice given so many of her recipes "a modern twist" (to quote the Introduction to "Renaissance Cooking II") and limited the amount of history in her booklets to avoid scaring away ordinary people who know little if anything about the history of cooking and food.  I think that's unfortunate, because the booklets tend to give a careless reader the impression that Renaissance-era Europeans routinely used potatoes and sweet potatoes in their cooking--which is not true.  But maybe I'm being too harsh.  If the booklets induce people to be a bit more curious about the origins of their food, and a bit more willing to experiment with novel recipes or novel means of food preparation, they will have accomplished a public service.  Never having visited the Minnesota Ren Faire, or otherwise watched Alice at work, I can't say how successful she is at getting ordinary people to be more experimental or to think about how other folk in earlier times have approached the issue of making tasty food.

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